Behavior Change Requires Sustained Focused Effort

How individuals and organizations can make lasting changes

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 11, Issue No. 9
December, 2012

By Dan Coughlin



I’m in the limited-impact business.

That’s hard for me to admit because many speakers, consultants, and authors believe that something they said or wrote can literally change other people’s lives forever. I’ve learned otherwise. No matter how good a speech, a seminar, a conversation, or a book is in terms of content and delivery, it still has limitations.

The best impact any person can hope to have on another is to increase the individual’s awareness of the benefits of changing certain ways of thinking and certain behaviors, and then help him or her develop new skills in these behavioral areas. As far as actually changing these thought patterns and behaviors on a permanent basis, that’s up to the other person.

Having said that, this article provides some suggestions that may help you to use your desired behaviors on a much more regular basis. This includes your behaviors as an individual as well as the behaviors of your group or entire organization. My hope is not just for a short-term behavior change that produces good short-term business results, but much more so for a long-term behavior change that generates sustainable success for you and your organization.

Your Own Behaviors

Clarify Why You Want the New Behaviors AND Be Okay with Using the New Behaviors

If you don’t have a compelling reason to change, why go to all the effort? And if you don’t have a good reason for changing, how will you maintain the effort that the change will require? So first write down why you want to change a certain behavior. What are all the benefits that you and others will derive if you behave in a different way? This is very important. Write your answers down.

Then imagine that you are behaving that way. Are you okay with this new behavior? One common desired behavior change is to eat better and to lose weight. A person sets a goal to reach a certain weight, and then works very hard to eat healthier and exercise regularly. However, many times the person gains all the weight back. Why? What happened? He or she wasn’t comfortable with this new way of eating and looking, and so went back to the old behaviors.

Before you start down a path toward a new behavior, make sure that you are psychologically and emotionally comfortable with landing in the behavior zone that you are aspiring for. Whether you want to lose weight or communicate in a more respectful way or be a better team player or develop your skills as a public speaker, envision what that behavior would be like for you. Are you okay with doing things that way? If not, you will develop a skill, and then you will abandon it.

Carry Written Reminders of the Desired New Behaviors

We all want to change some behavior, but we all get busy. And then the desired behavior moves farther and farther down our priority list as the day moves along until time runs out and we haven’t done anything. Write your desired behaviors, which might include what behaviors to stop doing and which ones to keep doing and which ones to start doing, on a piece of paper and carry that paper everywhere you go. Pull it out several times each day and read it over. Remind yourself of what you want to do.

Deliberately Carve Out Time for Reflection and Review

Just reciting words from a piece of paper is not going to change your behaviors. You have to reflect on those words so they become important to you every single day. If you don’t deliberately carve out time to reflect on what you’ve done, what you are doing, and what you want to do, you will quickly slip back into the very habits that you’re trying to change.

The main reason people go back to their old ways is because they don’t sustain their focus on the desired change often enough or long enough. It can take two years of consistent focus to truly make a permanent behavior change. Keep taking time to think about how you want to behave. Recovering addicts will stay focused every day for several years on how many days they have gone without alcohol or drugs.

Behaviors in Your Group or Organization

Now let’s look at how you can influence a behavior change throughout your organization. You can’t force it to happen, but you can do things to increase the chances of it happening.

Understand and Address the Underlying Assumptions

An organization’s culture consists of the basic underlying assumptions that are shared by many people in the organization and that have been developed and reinforced through common experiences. When an organization is formed the people in it try certain approaches to achieve results. If those approaches prove to be successful, then these people start to assume that this is the way to do things. Over time, these early assumptions become so engrained that no one questions them. However, as the world around the organization changes, some of those assumptions lead to behaviors that actually hurt the organization’s results.

As a business leader, you need to work with your team members to identify which assumptions should continue on to ensure the success of the company and which assumptions need to be altered or removed permanently. You then need to communicate to the organization that changing a particular assumption, and the behaviors that go with it, will help the organization succeed over the long term. In doing so, you have to help people be okay with landing in the new behavior zone. Otherwise they will revert back to the old way of doing things. This requires many two-way conversations with individuals and groups to discuss the value of letting go of an old assumption and old behaviors that are no longer effective and replacing them with new ways of thinking and behaving.

If in the early days of your company being extremely fast with customers and avoiding any kind of small talk or relationship-building with them was the key to early successes, then people today might assume that anything that slows down the process of getting customers what they want is a bad idea. However, if your market has changed and customers have come to expect politeness and patience in getting their questions answered, then this “speed at all costs” assumption could be hurting your business. As the business leader, you will need to help the people in your organization become psychologically and emotionally comfortable with slowing down and talking with customers and taking their time to get the order right each time. This takes time and effort. Your folks will not be okay with an instant change with no explanation or time to think through whether or not they want to behave in the new way. You will need to patiently work with them to see the benefit of changing this behavior.

Demonstrate Daily that You Pay Attention to the Desired Behaviors

If you want a permanent behavior change in your organization, don’t just write it on your to-do list and then check it off. Every day look for the behavior that you want to see. When you see it, point it out. When you see the absence of it, point it out. If you remain consistent in your focus on the desired behavior over a long period of time, people will start to catch on that you mean what you say. Also, make sure that the behaviors you demonstrate every day align with what you want other people to do. I’ll never forget the boss who screamed, “Treat our customers with respect!” Reminds me of the executive who had a sign on his desk with the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that read, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.”

In Crisis Situations, Show What You Value

People show their truest colors and their deepest beliefs in tough times. If halfway through the quarter, your business results are lousy, you may very well be tempted to tell everyone to go back to an old behavior, like focusing on fast service to a very high degree after it’s become clear that building strong customer relationships is the key to success for the organization. When you are faced with a crisis, decide what behaviors you want to emphasize in your company. That’s when people will be paying the most attention to you. They won’t take you seriously about changing to a new behavior if your first reaction in a crisis is to get everyone to do an old behavior.

Clearly Reward the Desired Behaviors

In lots of big and small ways, reward people who do the new behavior that you want demonstrated and punish the people who continue on with the old behavior. You can’t force people to make a permanent behavior change, but you can reinforce the importance of the new behavior through a combination of positive and negative consequences.

Create Multiple Teaching Moments

Look for opportunities to gather a group of your employees together in person or via email and explain why a certain action was a good thing. Don’t just theorize about a new way of behaving. Watch your employees and then when you see what you are looking for make a big deal about it. Let your employees know that this is the way you want everyone to behave. When you see the wrong behavior, meet with the employee in private and explain why that behavior is no longer acceptable in the organization.

Recruit, Hire, Promote, and Fire Based on Desired Behaviors

The ultimate ways to show which assumptions you want people to make and which behaviors you want them to use are demonstrated in your decisions around personnel. When you make it clear that you are recruiting, hiring, and promoting people who demonstrate the new assumptions you want in your organization and that you are willing to fire people who cling to assumptions from the past that are no longer desired, you will send an incredibly powerful message to your entire organization or your part of the organization.

Formalize the Expected Behaviors in Your Group or Organization

I put this step last because all the other steps have to happen before this one has any real meaning to it. Developing a formal statement about the expected behaviors in an organization will only have validity if those stated behaviors are the way people truly aspire to behave. If the statement talks about integrity, honesty, and respect, but people throughout the organization continually cheat, lie, and badmouth each other, then the statement doesn’t mean much.

Ironically, the best time to communicate a clear statement about the expected behaviors in an organization is when you don’t need the statement at all. That is, when the actual behaviors are exactly what you want them to be. Then the statement has value because it explains in a concise way to other people what they can expect if they interact with people in your organization.


As with individual behavior changes, changing behaviors in an organization requires daily focus sustained for a very long time on very specific changes in assumptions and ways of doing things. People have to see the value of believing these new assumptions and acting in these new ways. They have to see results that support the new way of thinking and doing things. That is going to take time as well. This is why being a successful business leader requires real effort that is expended over a long period of time and focused on a very few items.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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